As our pets age, you may begin to notice subtle changes in their movement, such as having a little difficulty going up or down the stairs, or seemingly slow to rise from a comfortable laying position. These can be early signs of arthritis, and early intervention is critical to slowing progression of the disease. I am currently experiencing this “slow down” with my 11 year old Dobie, and I thought it would be good to share some suggestions that you, too, can consider if you have a pet that is living with some degree of arthritis.
Like any lifestyle change, one of the most important things to do first is to ensure that there are no other causes for the changes you are seeing in your pet. An intermittent and subtle slow down can be caused by many things, such as a low thyroid level or even a slowly bleeding tumor on the spleen. X-rays, a urine sample and blood work are important to ensure the overall health of your pet before starting any treatment plan.
Today, there are a number of effective pain medications that are available to our pets, and a multi-modal approach to pain management is the best way to go. By using pain medications that address various pain pathways, you get more complete and synergistic pain management while actually using lower doses of medications. A cornerstone of arthritis management is a non-steroidal anti inflammatory, or NSAID. This provides excellent pain management in the early stages of arthritis, and then as the disease progresses, additional “layers” of pain management can be “added on.” These medications include such options as gabapentin, tramadol, and amantadine, with each one working to enhance the other.
Adequan is another medication that has been used in pets with degenerative joint disease or traumatic events such as a torn cruciate ligament. It works to help slow down the rate of decay of cartilage as well as stimulate new collagen and hyaluronic acid, a lubricant in joints. This is an injectable product that can be taught to be given at home underneath the skin and is initially given twice weekly for three to four weeks and then, once monthly. By the fifth or sixth injection, most pet parents usually see a more comfortable and agile pet.
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Supplements such as glucosamine, chondroitin and omega-3 fish oils are good additions to managing arthritis changes. These supplements provide your pet's joints with building materials to help rebuild their cartilage and decrease the inflammation in the joints. Supplements are not an overnight fix, and they generally take at least six weeks before improvements can be seen. Products can be purchased over-the-counter and do not need to be labeled specifically for pets. However, not all nutrapharmaceutical products are FDA regulated, and there is quite a bit of discussion with regards to bioavailability between various brands; this is a case where cheaper is not always better and I would recommend purchasing only high quality and trusted brands. Your veterinarian can make recommendations for you. The standard dose for glucosamine/chondroitin is approximately 10 mg per pound of body weight once a day, for which you can round up or down to make tablet division or multiplying easiest. For example, a 20-pound dog could take half of a 500 mg tablet daily (250 mg), even though its “recommended” dose is 200 mg. Also, when you are considering fish oil, you want to be sure to base it on the omega-3 concentration of EPA. The dose is 20 mg EPA for every pound of body weight once daily, and for example, our 20-pound dog would need 400 mg EPA daily.
Another area of extreme importance is your pet’s body weight. I have to admit, I am a little guilty of letting this area slip and my boy and I recently went through a five-pound weight reduction program (I couldn’t let him “suffer” alone). How can you tell if your pet is a little too chubby? You should be able to easily feel your pet's ribs and backbone beneath the skin; if you cannot, then your pet may be overweight. Excessive weight is an added burden for already compromised joints, and you may be amazed how much better your dog will feel simply by shedding a few pounds. I can already see a difference in the way Bauer prances around.
Continued activity is also important—the old adage, “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” holds true for our pets, too. Working to keep up your pet’s muscle mass through activity can help provide stability and flexibility to joints. Low-impact exercise is best, such as long walks and swimming, and both are highly encouraged.
There are also newer concepts of arthritis management. One such treatment is known as Stem Cell Therapy. This is a procedure in which adult stem cells are injected into the arthritic joints, or into damaged ligaments and tendons, to aid in healing and repair. While continued studies are still needed, there are many reports of pets responding well and this therapy holds promise. Joint replacement is a surgical therapy and has been proven to be very successful. As an example, 95% of canine patients with hip replacement can return to normal function. There has also been the development of dedicated rehabilitation centers for pets, which are becoming more widely available as the demand for options grows. Trained professionals can offer additional treatments such as hydrotherapy, acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, physical therapy, cold laser therapy, and pulsed signal therapy. Complementary treatments can offer your pet a complete approach to management of its arthritis, and many of these singular modalities, such as acupuncture, are often offered by veterinarians in general practice. These newer approaches to arthritis management are areas that I can discuss in greater detail in another blog, if there is any interest. Let me know!